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Venezuela’s Maduro vows to veto amnesty bill passed by National Assembly

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 30 (UPI) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro vowed to veto an amnesty bill passed by the National Assembly that could see opposition leaders freed from jail.

The law was passed after heated debate late Tuesday in Venezuela’s opposition-controlled unicameral National Assembly. At least 70 people could be potentially freed from prison, whom the opposition considers political prisoners but the ruling government of Maduro largely considers “criminals and terrorists.”

The Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD, political opposition coalition won a qualified majority, or supermajority, in historic parliamentary elections in December that dealt the first major loss to the socialist movement in Venezuela established by late former President Hugo Chávez.

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced in September to nearly 14 years imprisonment, could potentially be released. He was found guilty on four charges: conspiracy, public incitement, determinative in arson and in damages.

Leopoldo López in his prison cell. López has been held since February 2014 on what human rights groups say are politically motivated charges. Photo courtesy LeopoldoLopez.com

Lopez, leader of the Voluntad Popular — or Popular Will — opposition party and former mayor of Chacao, a municipality within Caracas, was arrested in February 2014 after handing himself over to authorities.

He organized protests earlier in 2014 calling for better security, an end to food shortages and enhanced freedom of speech for citizens, but the protests turned deadly — about 43 people died, both government supporters and opponents.

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Maduro’s government blamed Lopez partly for fueling tensions that led to the deadly demonstrations. That accusation led to a trial and conviction that has been considered a sham by the opposition and numerous human rights organizations.

The trial’s prosecutor later fled Venezuela and told international media that Lopez’s conviction had been politically motivated. Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, praised the amnesty bill’s passage in a statement issued Tuesday.

“Today, with this amnesty law, we’re taking a major step towards the rescue of democracy and liberty,” she said. “We’re going to free not just the political prisoners but the whole of Venezuela.”

Other opposition leaders who could be freed include Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, who was charged with conspiracy, and Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristobal. Both are held under house arrest.

Maduro promised to veto the amnesty bill but the opposition can override the veto as it holds a supermajority. Maduro can also send the bill to the Supreme Court to determine its constitutionality, which could further escalate accusations that the judiciary acts on the behalf of Maduro.

The MUD plans to remove Maduro from power by holding a recall referendum in 2016. The Venezuelan Constitution declares a recall referendum can be held once the president has served half a term and at least 20 percent of registered voters sign a petition.

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